We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in science writing.
A story about a handful of girls who have “syndrome X,” a rare disease that keeps their bodies in what seems to be a permanent state of infancy:
Brooke was born a few weeks premature at just over 4 pounds. She had many birth defects, including moderate hearing loss, dislocated hips and dysmorphic facial features. Her brain had abnormally large chambers of fluid and lacked a corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibres that connects the right and left hemispheres. She had trouble swallowing, and by six months was eating through a feeding tube in her stomach. She always coughed and wheezed. Her paediatrician labelled her with “syndrome X”, not knowing what else to call it.
By age three, Brooke had reached 12 pounds, and she hovered around that weight until age 12, when she appeared on Dateline. After watching the show, Walker tracked down Howard Greenberg’s address and sent him a letter about his scientific background and his interest in Brooke’s case. Two weeks went by before Walker heard back, and after much discussion he was allowed to test Brooke. He was sent Brooke’s medical records as well as blood samples for genetic testing. In 2009, his team published a brief report describing her case.
The writer accompanies a neuroscientist from Harvard on a trip to a Romanian orphanage. The Bucharest Early Intervention Project—a study of the effects of early institutionalization on brain and behavior development—has become well-respected on the scientific community, but it also raised questions about the ethics of scientific research:
“Two days before our visit to the orphanage, I accompanied Nelson to a homely green building that houses the psychology department of the University of Bucharest, where he holds an honorary doctorate. He had been invited by the Dean to give a talk on the ethics of human research.
“All reputable scientific institutions follow a few ethical principles to guide their human experiments: participants must give informed and unambiguous consent; researchers must thoroughly consider possible risks and benefits; the gains and burdens of research must be equally distributed to participants and society at large. These rules are largely unheard of in Romania, let alone enforced.
“In a packed auditorium, Nelson began his lecture by describing the fundamental moral dilemma facing all clinical studies. ‘The real goal of research is to generate useful knowledge about health and illness, not necessarily to benefit those who participate in the research,’ he said. That means, he added, that participants are at risk of being exploited.”
A look at hypersomnolence, a condition that causes a person to sleep excessively, and the difficulty of treating a rare sleeping disorder:
“Sumner needed sleep like an addict needs a fix. ‘It was this overpowering desire in me, a physical urge,’ she says. ‘And there was always the hope that, maybe this time, I would wake up feeling better.’
“Sumner was almost 30 before finally confronting her problem. She had joined a high-profile law firm in Atlanta and, for the first time in her life, didn’t have a flexible schedule. She couldn’t nap without raising eyebrows. ‘That’s when it finally hit me,’ she says. ‘This is not how you’re supposed to feel.’
“In the fall of 2005, she sought help at the Emory Clinic Sleep Center. She learned that her problem, known as hypersomnolence, was rare but not unheard of. Over the next six years, a team of doctors there analyzed the chemicals in her brain and in the brains of 31 other hypersomniacs. They fingered one mysterious substance as the culprit.”
Scientists are trying to uncover why some people are better able to recover from trauma than others:
“After Ebaugh crawled up the rocky riverbank, a truck driver picked her up, took her to a nearby convenience store and bought her a cup of hot tea. Police, when they arrived, were sympathetic and patient. The doctor at the hospital, she says, treated her like a daughter. A close friend took her in for a time. And her family offered reassurance and emotional support. ‘For the first month, I almost had to tell people to stop coming because I was so surrounded by friends and community,’ she says.
“Studies of many kinds of trauma have shown that social support is a strong buffer against PTSD and other psychological problems. James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has done a series of experiments in which women lie in an fMRI scanner and see ‘threat cues’ on a screen. They are told that between 4 and 10 seconds later, they may receive a small electric shock on the ankle. The cue triggers sensory arousal and activates brain regions associated with fear and anxiety, but when the women hold the hands of their husbands2 or friends3, these responses diminish.
“Social interactions are complex and involve many brain circuits and chemicals; no one knows exactly why they provide relief.”